The annals of “I’m not antivaccine,” part 15: California SB 277, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and the vaccine “holocaust”

Later today, I’ll be on my way to New York City to take part in the Science-Based Medicine portion of NECSS. I’m very much looking forward to it, not the least because I haven’t been to New York in five years but even more so because I look forward to meeting up with the rest of the SBM crew and those interested in science and skepticism and trying, in my small way, to impart some little bit of what I’ve learned over the years about quackery, pseudoscience, and how to counter them. As a result, blogging might be more sporadic than usual for a few days. I mean, I haven’t even quite finished my talk yet, which is why I’m thankful for plane rides. Let’s just say that right now my talk is like my blog posts and as a result needs some serious pruning if I’m to finish it within the allotted time in a comprehensible manner.

In the meantime, there’s a little tidbit that I can’t help but comment on briefly. I’ve pointed out time and time again how antivaccine activists resent being called “antivaccine.” They will draw themselves up (metaphorically speaking if online) in a self-righteous fury and retort, “I’m not ‘antivaccine.’ I’m a vaccine safety advocate. I’m pro-safe vaccine!” It’s a retort that goes back to Jenny McCarthy in 2008 and by others even before, although it was Jenny McCarthy’s co-optation of that particular technique of denial that first brought it to my attention. It seems so long ago!

Of course, it’s a lie. The lie is revealed rather easily just by observing a type of comparison that antivaccinationists like to use not infrequently when they get a bit worked up. I’ve documented antivaccine activists comparing vaccination and their fantasy of “vaccine-induced autism” to everything from human trafficking, to rape, the Titanic, Nazi-ism, and, of course the Holocaust. In fact, comparisons to the Holocaust seem to be a favorite, complete with mentions of Josef Mengele, the infamous Nazi physician who carried out horrific medical experiments on prisoners at Auschwitz.

Translation: "This congenitally handicapped person costs the nation, as a whole, 60,000 Reichsmark over a lifetime.  People this is your money. Read Neuses Volk"

Translation: “This congenitally handicapped person costs the nation, as a whole, 60,000 Reichsmark over a lifetime. People this is your money. Read Neuses Volk

Neuses Volk was a mass-market, illustrated magazine aimed at a wide audience as the monthly publication of the Office of Racial Policy in Nazi Germany. It was dedicated to the “excellence” of the Aryan race and the “deficiencies” of Jews, Poles, and other groups and published many articles defending eugenic sterilization, often juxtaposing photos of mentally incapacitated children with those of healthy children.

I bring this up because a certain antivaccine crank, someone I’ve been writing about just shy of a decade now has over the last several months been trying to deny that he’s antivaccine, even going so far as to call himself “fiercely pro-vaccine” back in September. Yes, I’m referring to Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., one of the crankiest of antivaccine cranks out there. RFK, Jr. is utterly convinced, against all evidence otherwise, that the mercury-containing preservative thimerosal that used to be in childhood vaccines in the US until around the end of 2001, when it was removed from nearly all of them, is a major cause of the “autism epidemic,” as he spreads conspiracy theories about the CDC so obviously nonsensical that I almost feel embarrassed for him. Almost. His arguments in general are so full of crankery that it’s hard not to feel contempt for him.

So what’s he up to this time? Well, lately, RFK, Jr. has been doing his utmost to assist antivaccine advocates and “health freedom” activists to defeat SB277 in California. SB277, as you might recall, is a bill introduced by State Senators Richard Pan and Ben Allen that would repeal the personal belief exemption to school vaccine mandates. Seemingly every major antivaccine activist in the country has been invading California to try to defeat the bill, including, of course, RFK, Jr. had to be part of the action, while promoting his antivaccine movie Trace Amounts.

Here’s a news account:

But some parents fear information about the hazards of vaccines has been suppressed, largely because of what they call the pharmaceutical industry’s influence over health officials. Many parents believe their children have been damaged by vaccines. When Kennedy asked the crowd of a few hundred viewers how many parents had a child injured by vaccines, numerous hands went up.

“They get the shot, that night they have a fever of a hundred and three, they go to sleep, and three months later their brain is gone,” Kennedy said. “This is a holocaust, what this is doing to our country.”

Look at the contempt for autistic children (and, let’s be clear, this is about the myth that vaccines cause autism). Look at what RFK, Jr. says: “Their brain is gone.” In other words, they were human, but vaccines made them somehow less than human because what makes them who they are, their brains, is gone. RFK, Jr.’s reference to the Holocaust is unintentionally appropriate, but not in the way RFK, Jr. meant it. Such an attitude (“their brain is gone”) would not have been out of place in, ironically enough given all the Nazi analogies that antivaccinationists like to make, Nazi Germany. After all, one of the slogans used by Nazis to justify the T4 euthanasia program in which “mental defectives” were “euthanized” was “Lebensunwertes leben,” or “life unworthy of life.”

In all fairness, it’s obvious that RFK, Jr. isn’t advocating killing autistics. He is, however, expressing attitudes that allowed the T4 euthanasia program to be tolerated, even supported, by German civilians. Vaccines took away their brains! It’s a meme we hear frequently from antivaccine parents who believe vaccines caused their child’s autism. Their child was perfectly normal until vaccines ruined him! Vaccines took their “real” child away. This sort of thinking is also used as justification for “autism biomed” quackery that seeks to “recover” the child. The very word “recover” implies finding something that was lost, as though the autistic child is not the parents’ real child but the real child can be “recovered” with the appropriate quack treatments.

What I’d really love to see sometime in the near future would be for a journalist interviewing RFK, Jr. to answer his claim that he is “fiercely pro-vaccine” by asking him, “If that’s the case, then why did you refer to vaccines causing a high fever that takes away a child’s brain and then use the word ‘holocaust’ to describe it?”

That sure sounds antivaccine to me.

And SB 277? It made it through the California Senate Health Committee by a vote of 6-2. It still has a long way to go, but at least it didn’t die in committee.